Aussie Hits That Weren't

Aussie Hits That Weren't


It doesn’t have to be a hit to end up iconic.  That’s right, some of our most iconic Australian rock and pop songs went by unrecognised at the time of release, or barely made a dint. In some instances, it was because the artist in question was still finding their feet commercially and because they were album artists rather than singles artists. In others, it just defies logic. Let’s check out some of the best.

Cold Chisel “Khe Sanh”

Yep, it’s as close as we’ve had to an alternative national anthem for the last few decades, and it’s a brilliant song that will defy the knockers until the end of the time, but upon release, Chisel’s first single, taken from their self-titled first album, was actually banned from the airwaves. Of course, it did get spins on Double J in Sydney and community radio elsewhere, but it that wasn’t enough to get it into the Top 30. The album did reach #31 however, and as Chisel’s popularity grew so did that of the song. It did briefly reach #40 upon rerelease in 2011. In 2001, APRA voted the song as #8 in its list of all-time best Australian songs, and just last month it came in at #1 in Triple M’s poll of the 100 “Ozzest” songs of all time. No surprises there!


The Angels “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again”

Another iconic late ‘70s track, “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again” has a convoluted history, but it needs to be said that when first released as a single it got no higher than #58. And that was the second version – a slighter slower version, minus the ‘ambulance siren’ lead line, had already appeared on the band’s debut album. A live version appeared on the Out of the Blue EP following the success of the band’s second album Face To Face – the EP cracked the Top 30  - but it wasn’t until 1988 that a single version of the track – another live version – became a Top 30 hit. By then the song had become synonymous with the “No way! Get fucked! Fuck off!” audience response in the chorus, which has given the song a life of its own.

Paul Kelly & the Coloured Girls “Leaps & Bounds”

Like Chisel, Paul Kelly has been known predominantly as an album artist throughout his career, although he did have three Top 20 singles in 1986 and 87. Although it was released as a single in ’86, “Leaps & Bounds” wasn’t one of them. The track, which appeared on Paul’s first album with the Coloured Girls, the double LP Gossip, was co-written by Paul and Melbourne guitarist Chris Langman, who has previously been an original member of Paul’s band the Dots, and who, prior to that, had been a member of the band Spare Change, whose Punt Road house Paul had moved into when he first moved to Melbourne. The song originally dated back to those days – it remains a classic Melbourne song, even though Paul was Sydney based by the time he recorded it - and earlier recordings of the song exist (although they were never commercially released), as made by Chris Langman’s 1980 band the Glory Boys (which featured other members of Spare Change and well as future Crowded House bass player Nick Seymour), and, apparently, by Flowers, from around the time they became Icehouse. (The link here was probably drummer John Lloyd, who left the Dots to join Flowers.)

Hunters & Collectors “Throw Your Arms Around Me”

Another classic Melbourne song, “Throw Your Arms Around Me” did scrape into the Top 40 – it reached #32 twice in fact, in 1986 and 1991 – but the earliest recording of the song, released in 1984 as a single, failed to chart at all. A version of the song had even appeared on the 1985 live album The Way To Go Out before the band decided to record it for the 1986 breakthrough album Human Frailty.  In 1984 H&C were seen very much as arty Melbourne types, but as they increasingly reached out into the pubs with an earthier sound, the band’s stature, and that of this song – of all their earlier tracks – certainly grew. The song has been covered by the likes of Crowded House (whose Nick Seymour was the younger brother of H&C’s Mark), Pearl Jam and Luka Bloom, and we’ve always thought if Hollywood gets hip to the song and includes a version in some smash hit rom-com it will become a worldwide hit for someone.  

The Saints “Know Your Product”

Their first single, “(I’m) Stranded” is probably more famous for historical reasons, but “Know Your Product” is the one that’s seemingly on Rage every night, and the one that has been most loved for 40 years or so now.  Assumedly it’s that killer horn riff, which confused the critics so when it was first released because so-called punk bands (which the Saints never saw themselves as anyway) weren’t supposed to use brass. The song has been covered over the years by Hunters & Collectors and Midnight Oil, and Kurt Cobain listed it in his Top 50 favourite songs. Not bad for a band that was openly derided by the Australian Music Industry when they appeared in 1976.

Radio Birdman “Aloha Steve & Danno”

Another cult band loathed by the mainstream when they first around in the mid-late ‘70s, the stature of Sydney’s Radio Birdman grew to the point that a short reunion tour in 1996 (the first of many…) most likely saw the band play to more people than ever had in their entire first time around. The Hawaii 5-0 inspired “Aloha Steve & Danno” was originally released as single in 1978 but it failed to get any commercial recognition at all. In certain quarters now – especially amongst surfers and alternative rock fans – the track never fails to connect.

The Triffids “Wide Open Road”

Later alternative heroes the Triffids similarly failed to make great commercial inroads in  Australia in their day; although “Wide Open Road” reached #26 in the UK, it only reached #64 here at home. They did have one single that reached #40 here for one week, “Bury Me Deep In Love”. It’s “Wide Open Road” though that has become the anthem, with its evocative lyrics and widescreen sound suggesting a feeling that is uniquely Australian. Or more specifically West Australian.  With the song’s writer & singer David McComb in poor health in 1998 (he died the following year), Paul Kelly and The Saints' Chris Bailey performed "Wide Open Road" at the Mushroom 25th Anniversary concert in 1998; and Steve Kilbey was on hand to sing the song with the Triffids when they were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006. At the ceremony, Kilbey said, “It's nerve-wracking, it's a huge song. It's like singing (Led Zeppelin's) "Whole Lotta Love" - everybody knows it and loves it. The moment I heard it I wished I'd written it, and after all this time through very unfortunate circumstances the dream (to perform it) has come true.”

The Go-Betweens “Streets Of Your Town”

Another song that got no commercial airplay at the time but which – thanks to critical acclaim, continued regeneration of fanbase, enduring quality and a particular Australian-ness that lends itself to use in advertising – has grown to icon status over a period of decades. It only reached #70 here back in 1988, although it did fare better in the UK (#60) and NZ (where it surprisingly reached #30). It’s interesting to note too that whilst Grant McLennan’s songs with the Go-Betweens are considered by some to be a major influence on the music of GANGgajang (whose frontman Mark Callaghan started performing in Brisbane in bands alongside the Go-Betweens),  “Streets Of Your Town” actually followed “The Sounds of Then” (aka “This Is Australia”) by a couple of years. (It is also interesting to note that the two most overtly Australian tracks here – this and the Triffids track – come from band’s who never associated themselves with any thought of “Oz Rock”, and who both achieved far greater success overseas.)

Christine Anu “Island Home” / Warumpi Band “My Island Home”

We were surprised to find that Christine’s version of the Warumpi Band tune didn’t reach higher than #67 nationally in 1995, although it did win APRA Song of the Year and was nominated for ARIA’s Song of the Year. It was voted at number 47 in the Triple J Hottest 100 that year as well, and famously Christine performed the song at the closing ceremony for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The Warumpi’s version fared even worse, although it remains a magical piece of music. If you only know Christine’s, you owe it to yourself to check out the original, also below. Of course the song is not actually about Australia as is so often assumed – the island in question was singer George Burarrwanga‘s home, Elcho Island, off the coast off Arnham Land.  

Powderfinger “These Days”

And last but not least… It seems amazing that this wasn’t even released it as a single; well not as an A-side anyway. That’s right, “These Days” was originally a B-side. Written for the film Two Hands at the request of director Gregor Jordan, it also featured on the band’s massive Odyssey Number Five album. Single or not it topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 2000, and has of course gone on to become one Australia’s most loved songs.

 - Dave Laing

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